More noise than signal

Hollow Man

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

Paul Verhoeven has never been one to shirk controversy, either caused by wanton violence albeit with a sociological point behind it (Robocop, Starship Troopers), sex (Basic Instinct), or just being plain rubbish (Showgirls). News of this twist on the invisible man films was met with some interest, wondering exactly what he and Air Force One scribe Andrew W. Marlowe would come up with. The answer to this is unfortunately a poorly executed schlock slasher atrocity to which B-movie status is a far-off, lofty goal.

Kevin Bacon takes the lead role as the initially genial and brilliant scientist Sebastian Caine. He’s ensconced in a top secret underground research lab, funded by the military. The aim of his project is simple – create a serum that will turn the subject invisible, and get them back into the land of the visible. We’re shown by the test subjects that making them vanish isn’t too difficult, but the trick being in the second part. Being ‘phase shifted’ like this also seems to have some interesting and unwanted side effects, making them a shade angrier than normal. Seb sits in front of his computer and has a bright idea, dropping a few spheres into a DNA molecule through an interface that owes more to 3D Studio MAX than a medical simulation package. It seems to work, so he calls his team into the labs to re-visible a previously invisibled gorilla. His team consists chiefly of stereotypes. Sorry, highly trained technical experts. Elizabeth Shue plays his right hand woman and previous lover, Linda. His research adjunct, Matt (Josh Brolin) is a less brilliant but more balanced scientist, and currently in a relationship with Linda. This kind of love triangle may be setting of your rom-com alarms, but don’t worry, it most certainly isn’t of that genre. Other personnel include an overly concerned vet, Sarah (Kim Dickens), who doesn’t seem to have been informed that these various monkeys and rats are test subjects, and fretting over their well-being may be a tad pointless. The IT tech personnel include the geeky Frank (Joey Slotnick), the spunky Janice (Mary Randle) and the ill-defined Carter (Greg Grunberg), who’s more of another body than a character. Let’s say he’s a lab technician for completeness’ sake.

The serum is injected into the invisi-rilla, de-phase shifting (when a film starts stealing pseudo-science from Star Trek you know it’s in trouble), the veins first becoming visible then spreading through the muscles and eventually skin in what remains an impressive digital effect today, and more convincing than the ‘real’ (read:man in suit) gorilla. The process goes relatively smoothly and the team decamp to an eatery to celebrate, the only real purpose behind it to establish Linda and Sebastian’s previous relationship as Seb’s attempts at rekindling that flame are quickly snuffed out by Linda, for the second time in the movie. Verhoeven is rarely one for subtlety, and here he beats you around the head with this now-unrequited love here in a way which only serves of making the viewer believe the focus of events will be the Matt/Linda/Seb love triangle, which never materialises.

At a military hearing, Sebastian surprises his compadres by claiming the serum isn’t quite ready yet. His reasons seem valid – he fears the military will immediately take over his project, denying him the chance to become the first invisible man. His team is a little worried about this, but eventually agrees. The procedure is painful, but successful. An invisible man can get up to all manner of japery, and Sebastian is no exception, hiding things, moving stuff around, undressing sleeping people, watching people urinate and making more failed passes at Linda. 86 hours after vanishing, time comes to bring him back. This fails. Sebastian now has two problems; getting him self back to the land of the visible before unwanted physiological effects take hold, and doing it before the Pentagon notice what’s going on and get shirty about it. As a visual aid to stop freaking out his team so much, he makes a lovely latex mask for himself.

A week later, they’re no closer to a solution. Sebastian is going stir crazy in the lab, and decides to go out. Carter is too ineffectual to stop him, but alerts the rest of the team that they may have a problem. Indeed they do, as Sebastian quickly goes from voyeurism of a neighbour to sexual assault. From this point in the film goes from being reasonably promising with a few neat ideas that could be developed to a sub-par slasher. That said, despite the handicap of not being able to see his eyes (as they’re invisible) and anything but the most exaggerated expressions (due to the mask) Kevin Bacon does a pretty good job showing the descent of Sebastian from genial but aggressive to mental and aggressive. And it’s a remarkably quick descent. He sneaks out of the lab again as the thermal monitors prove simple to gimmick. I suppose he is a brilliant scientist and picking plot holes here is like shooting fish in a barrel, so I’ll let this slide. He seems to have designs of Linda, but instead discovers for the first time that Linda is in a relationship with Matt. When the team discover he’s out and about again, they decide they’ve had enough and go to Dr. Kramer, the leader of the Pentagon board. Sebastian clearly can’t allow him to tell the rest of the board, so take the only course possible – drowning him in his own swimming pool. This gives us another excuse for a nice underwater SFX shot, as the shots of water refracting light around Sebastian’s body are very neatly done.

The movie now dies. Sebastian seems to decide on a scorched earth policy, as he locks his team in the lab and starts to pick them off one by one. Apparently he’s become addicted to the power of invisibility, and can’t let anyone turn him back. As he says, “It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have to look at yourself in the mirror anymore.”. Unfortunately we still have to see it, as the film turns into a totally non-ironic ‘horror’ movie which eschews the building creepiness of films like The Ring for the all out gory crapfests of Halloween and Nightmare On Elm Street, although even those franchises had the sense to stop taking themselves seriously before this. It totally fails to scare, and manages to screw up what ought to be a sure-fire tension building idea. Films such as Alien show that the best horror occurs inside your head, and showing as little as possible of the ‘bad guy’ is a superb way of achieving this. Here all manner of techniques are used to point out exactly where he is, from steam leaks to fire extinguishers. Sensible on the victims part, but not so good from our perspective.

You can probably fill in the rest of the plot yourself, everyone bar the heroine and surprisingly Matt are killed, Sebastian makes the critical Bond villain error of leaving them in an easily escapable situation while he goes off to rig the lab to explode. After a final battle between Linda and Sebastian on an out-of-control, plunging elevator Sebastian falls into the fire of his own creation, destroying his body just as the experiment of his own creation destroyed his mind. How wonderfully deep! The delicious irony of it all! Mmmm, irony.

For a slasher movie it makes the critical mistake of making the villain far more interesting than the people whose survival I’m supposed to be rooting for. They’re either too poorly defined (Carter, Frank, Janice), too boring (Matt), or too irritating(Sarah, Linda) for me to care much one way or the other if they survive or not. In fact, I’m rooting for their bloody deaths, and for the most part that disappoints, as no-one really cops it in an amusing and/or spectacular fashion.

It’s not all bad. The script is minimal but the acting is reasonable throughout, no one standing out as being awful. The effects, while outclassed by more recent outings still look dramatic and convincing, holding my attention far better than the plot can. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is also suitably dramatic. Verhoeven’s direction in the first half of the movie is deft, using some nice techniques to keep the audience knowing more or less where Sebastian is at all times without resorting to stereotypes of having Seb carry pencils around as a tracking device, also using some nice first-person perspective shots where appropriate. It’s a pity that the same technique ruins the second half of the film.

Marlowe apparently conceived the film as a morality tale, but it doesn’t make sense as such. According to the liner notes, he was fascinated with the psychological implications of a person with all social constraints lifted. This is a falsehood; just because he can now get away with things he may not have before does not give one carte blanch to go ahead and do it without first setting aside all morality, and there are few things as silly as a morality tale without morals. It’s also sadly true that everything he does (with the exception of scaring small children by popping off his mask to reveal, well, nothing) could be achieved with little more difficulty were the fully visible. I’m not convinced his invisibility suddenly makes any of his misdemeanours suddenly possible, just easier. So, then would only really be a morality tale if he had deeply been considering a career of sexual assault and murder before becoming invisible. Even then it would be a trite one, I’m sure I’d heard that killing and raping was bad at some point previous to this.

As a film then, it pretty much fails on all levels. The effects and score are enough to drag it up from Cyber Tracker territory, but the final act really is a masterclass in what not to do in a movie like this. Unfortunate, as the first half at least shows some promise but in the final analysis, the film is ultimately hollow as the title suggests.